These and law firms across the nation provide millions of hours of pro bono assistance each year. Yet tremendous needs remain.
I have worked principally in the criminal justice area, so I will begin by explaining the somewhat shocking unmet needs for lawyers. Professor Cara Drinan at the Catholic University of America wrote recently, “Indigent defense systems across the nation operate with far too little money, resulting in a host of interrelated consequences. Public defenders carry excessive caseloads, they have inadequate, if any, access to investigative and expert assistance, and they cannot meet with and counsel their clients effectively and in a timely manner. Many indigent defendants make unintelligent waivers of their right to counsel, endure months in jail without hearing a status report from their lawyers, fail to secure pre-trial releases from jail, and either agree to plea bargains or go to trial without adequate discussion or preparation.”
The gaps on the civil side are just as troubling. For every client served by a legal aid group, one person who seeks help is turned down because of insufficient resources. Less than one in five of the legal problems experienced by low-income people are addressed with the assistance of either a private attorney (pro bono or paid) or a legal aid lawyer. Nationally, on average, only one legal aid attorney is available for over 6,000 low-income people. By comparison, there is one private attorney providing personal legal services for every 400 people who are above the poverty threshold.
The efforts I described above unquestionably provide some help for both civil and criminal matters. That story is told repeatedly, and well. As legal educators, we have our own story to tell.